Peeling Away the Layers of Banana Magazine
BY: ALEX PAULY
Yellow on the outside, white on the inside–the word “banana” holds a second, derogatory meaning to Asian-Americans who are taunted about their otherness. Now Vicki Ho and Kathleen Tso are reclaiming the derogatory term with Banana Magazine, a publication they co-founded to celebrate of all things Asian. Instead of working to fit in, they are honoring what makes them stand out, like the rappers, designers, and foods apart of their rich culture. Read our interview with the duo to find out why Banana matters:
To start out, can you tell us a little about your background? And what made you decide to base Banana Magazine out of Chinatown in New York City?
Vicki: I grew up in Brooklyn and I’m first-generation Chinese-American. A lot of my childhood consisted of going to several Chinatowns throughout New York City–8th Avenue in Sunset Park, Chinatown in Manhattan, Main Street in Flushing–to hang out with friends, go to prep school, eat a meal, etcetera. It’s where I was consistently surrounded by my culture so years later, it felt right to start a business in and get inspiration from the neighborhood.
Kathleen: I grew up in Allen, Texas, a predominantly white city outside of Dallas. I moved to New York City in 2012 and didn’t fall in love with [it] until I moved to Chinatown a year later. I haven’t left the neighborhood since, and it has been the source of inspiration throughout every issue of the magazine. Chinatown is a great central spot for us to all meet up to work on the magazine and take meetings over dim sum!
Growing up as an Asian American adopted by white parents, I struggled to find Asian role models to look up to. Can you name some Asian creatives who currently inspire you, or who you hope to feature in a future issue of Banana?
Vicki: That’s a tough one to pinpoint because everyone who’s been featured in our issues so far, or have worked with us on an event, are people I am constantly inspired by everyday. I’m always in awe that we finessed a way to feature these folks. We just did a panel series and had the opportunity to work with Miss Info as our moderator and that was a huge deal for me as a local New York kid, growing up and listening to her on Hot 97.
Kathleen: I have to agree with Vicki here, and ditto on all of our contributors and features–I’m so inspired by everyone who has been involved with the magazine. I’m also extremely inspired by Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot and hope to collaborate with him soon!
Oftentimes, I feel I’m viewed by others as either fully American (white) or fully Asian (foreign), rather than an amalgam of both. Do you have any advice for young Asian Americans who find themselves caught between these two identities?
Vicki: It’s something we feel all the time too. We actually featured a first-person story on this exact feeling and what it means to be Asian American today in issue 003. My advice is to find others who feel this way too and just have a conversation about it–it’s not as lonely of a feeling as you may think!
Kathleen: There are more Asian Americans coming into the spotlight as of late. Our experience and identity is coming more to the forefront and hopefully will be easier to understand for those growing up now!
How do you think the Trump administration has affected the Asian American experience?
Vicki: I think it’s really pushed us collectively to start speaking up and taking a stand for not only our own heritage, but also for other minorities. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s the most outspoken I’ve seen my own personal Asian community be in a long time and it’s really exciting to witness and be a part of.
Kathleen: As a community, we’re definitely more aware of our identity and our place in America. I’ve been so inspired by how many of my peers have begun to speak up and get involved. There’s still a long way to go and more work to do, though.
In previous interviews, you’ve noted that Banana is a project you work on while also holding full-time jobs. Do you anticipate the magazine ever becoming a full-time career? And what are your hopes for the future of Banana?
Vicki + Kathleen: That’s the dream for sure! With Issue 004 and our fourth year in business underway, we’re starting to think big picture and where we want to take the brand in the next five years. We talk a lot about community building and IRL initiatives whenever these conversations come up in our internal meetings.
In a similar vein, what can readers look forward to in Banana‘s upcoming fourth issue?
Vicki + Kathleen: We were extremely inspired by the conversations that came out of our Asian Male Masculinity panel, so expect to see an extension of that in Issue 004!